March 31, 2022 | National Review

Saving the Ayatollahs

Biden’s unwise Iran policy
March 31, 2022 | National Review

Saving the Ayatollahs

Biden’s unwise Iran policy

The Islamic Republic is in trouble. Its economy, heavily socialized and riddled with corruption, needs high-priced oil to stay afloat. Its politics are broken: Since the end of the 1990s, when a real reform movement, led mostly by lay, left-wing Islamists who thought that democracy could resuscitate and humanize the revolution, was suppressed, the regime has been rapidly losing ideological appeal and a solid base of support. Its bickering elite constantly plot against one another, finding common ground on fewer issues. Given its continuing commitment to subvert the regional order, the clerical regime remains permanently at odds with most of its neighbors.

In other words, the mullahs need a nuclear deal to give them relief from a predicament of their own making. As surely as détente prolonged the life of the Soviet Union, the West’s addiction to arms control is the theocracy’s own form of salvation. Contrary to what many observers have suggested, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the muscle behind the theocracy, supported Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because it brought so much cash with less-than-onerous inspections, sunsetting nuclear restrictions, no restraints on the IRGC’s foreign machinations, and no limitations on the country’s ballistic-missile program, which is under the IRGC’s control. By yielding little to and getting much from the Biden administration in the ongoing negotiations in Vienna, the clerical regime is trying again to have both guns and butter.

The defining truth: Iran isn’t an island of autocratic stability in a turbulent Middle East, which many commentators routinely suggested while the Arab world cracked up over the last 20 years. Economic malpractice, much more than sanctions, has left the Islamic Republic routinely subject to unrest. The mullahs have never managed to tame inflation, create suf­ficient jobs for the young, or temper their greed. When the Iranian press periodically reveals massive corruption scandals, this means, translated from Persian, that one mafia within the regime has the high ground over another, allowing prosecutors and judges, always aligned with the supreme leader’s current interests, to shred the offending party. American sanctions have aggravated all of these forces and the regime’s basic incompetence; the Covid-19 pandemic was so grossly mismanaged that even Iranian health officials have had the courage to say that U.S. sanctions, which have always had openings for health care, weren’t responsible for the shocking death tolls and clinical meltdowns. Or as the deputy minister of health, Younes Panahi, put it: “We have been dealt more damage by Covid-19 than we were in eight years of war [with Iraq].”

But economic incompetence rarely crashes a dictatorship; authoritarian states become wobbly when they lose their capacity to intimidate their sullen subjects. There is no social class that hasn’t registered its opposition to the clerical regime by taking to the streets. Teachers, farmers, laborers, university students, and even retirees have voiced their grievances, some displaying the bravery to face down, and occasionally force the retreat of, the regime’s security services. Ethnic unrest — the minorities probably make up a majority of the country — has become noticeably more vivid and violent in the last decade. The pious in shantytowns and those of more questionable faith in the well-to-do neighborhoods have found common cause in their rejection of theo­cracy. The class resentment that the mullahs relied on to keep order is gradually yielding to a sense of solidarity across large swaths of Iranian society. The evolution of the pro-revolution, Shiite-mysticism-loving populist and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a particularly amusing reflection of the half-educated poor who have ardently supported the theocracy. Moving from a sincere admirer of supreme leader Ali Khamenei to a mocking critic (and the way he disses the supreme leader is polite compared with the scathing attacks he’s launched on others in the clergy), Ahmadinejad shows how corrosive, potentially convulsive dissent can rise to the top. The ruling mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards are keenly aware that when dissident clergy, merchants, the urban and increasingly secular middle class, students, and the poor all are cursing unha, “them,” the unnamed source of their pain, they aren’t talking about a few bad apples among the ruling elite. Even more worrisome is the increasing boldness of the discontented to name their oppressors. “Death to Khamenei!” was common in the nationwide protests in 2017 and 2019. The latter protests required automatic-weapons fire, mass incarceration, and torture to stamp out.

In reply to all of this anger, the supreme leader serenely touts his “resistance economy,” in which Iran weans itself off oil and somehow relies on its internal markets and trade with China. This is a plan for deepening poverty, as a nation of 85 million people cannot sustain itself without increasing the export of its most lucrative natural resource. Iran isn’t Turkey, the most Westernized of Muslim states, which has made lasting progress without petroleum.

Yet economics has never been what the Islamic Republic is about. “Regional strength gives us strategic depth and more national strength. Why should we stop this approach?” asked Khamenei, who has overseen the theocracy’s much more aggressive and more explicitly Shiite expansionist policies. The supreme leader picked up the nuclear mantle from the former major domo of the revolutionary clergy, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who probably should be credited for first making the mullahs’ nuclear dreams a reality. Nuclear empowerment is similarly a declared goal of Khamenei, who has correctly assessed how becoming a nuclear state is a game-changer. And the supreme leader hasn’t been timid about purging those who cast some skepticism about the importance of the regime’s atomic ambitions. Khamenei, whom Rafsanjani made the supreme leader, once was hesitant about exercising his authority amid the country’s many competing power circles. Today, he demands loyalty or silence from those who disagree with his decisions.

And Khamenei, who succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, knows that big countervailing forces against him have often ebbed. Joe Biden came into office pledging to “pivot toward Asia,” an empty slogan that surely meant — still means — retreating from the Middle East more than it means confronting Beijing. The mullahs aren’t blind and deaf: This administration rather desperately seeks to revive a nuclear deal, with its quickly sunsetting limitations, with a regime that U.S. officials, unlike their predecessors in the Obama administration, don’t even pretend to see evolving toward moderation.

“Longer, stronger, and broader” was the White House’s initial mantra, meaning that once America returned to the agreement, it would seek to make its provisions stronger and its reach wider to include the clerical regime’s missiles and nefarious regional activities. All that talk is gone now. Tehran is set to receive billions in sanctions relief while moving ahead with its atomic ambitions. Terrorism, imperialism, ballistic missiles, and internal repression are effectively off the table. President Biden is now just transactional: very short-term nuclear therapy at a very high cost.

Nearly alone, the Islamic Republic sees an opportunity in Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As Mohammad Marandi, a particularly loathsome member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, noted, “They need Iranian energy to calm down the markets. So, it’s for their own good to [finish] the negotiations as soon as possible.” Indeed, the chatter in Western chancelleries is that, perhaps after a nuclear agreement, Iran’s oil can come back to the market and offset any loss of Russian exports. The Islamic Republic in this telling is no longer one of America’s most enduring adversaries but a global stakeholder. And Biden has oddly summoned this authentic axis, Iran and Venezuela, to help him stabilize carbon-based-energy markets, which, not too long ago, his administration viewed suspiciously, if not dismissively, because of their contribution to climate change.

Unsurprisingly, the mullahs have eagerly engaged the administration — while making it stay in the kiddy corner. (U.S.–Iranian negotiations in Vienna must be transacted via third parties.) They’re being offered a lot while being required to do little. An arms-control agreement can also help tranquilize the clerical regime’s domestic troubles. With its coffers full, the Islamic Republic can rebuild its patronage networks. In the 1970s, it was the Western loans, credits, and technology transfers that kept alive the Soviet bloc. But relief from sanctions is a temporary respite for the clerics: They will surely benefit from another generation of Americans wishing to placate a revisionist state. Yet the bonds between state and society are too damaged to be so easily healed. Western benevolence can’t straighten out the Islamic Republic’s internal contradictions.

But a deeply troubled revolutionary regime whose financial fortunes are improving is still a dangerous adversary. The clerical regime’s Arab Shiite militias have undone the politics in Iraq and Lebanon, sustained the Assad dynasty in Syria, and killed scores of Americans. With more funds at its dis­posal, the theocracy is bound to enlarge its auxiliary forces and bring more havoc to the region.

In the debris of the Russian assault on Ukraine, there are stark historical lessons. Rash ideologues cannot be dissuaded by diplomatic resets and commercial entreaties. Their calculus often defies American officials too invested in their balance sheets and bottom lines. Another lesson: A Russia that possesses nuclear weapons can undertake blatant aggression without fear that its territory will be molested. An Islamist regime that has its own designs on the Middle East understands that nuclear deterrence works.

An arms-control accord between Iran and America is now all but inevitable, momentary hiccups notwithstanding. In the mainstream, liberal press, the clerical regime, led by Khamenei and his ruthless mini-me president, Ibrahim Raisi, may even soon be celebrated as “hard-line pragmatists.” (And if the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards decide to test a nuclear weapon in the not-too-distant future, the same voices will surely find Iran’s ruling elite too dangerous to isolate.)

The Republican critics of the JCPOA and whatever now comes out of Vienna have been mostly fair and accurate. They are, nonetheless, not particularly reassuring, primarily because most Republicans also can’t free themselves from the infantilizing hopes of arms control. “Squeeze ’em until they relent,” which was essentially Donald Trump’s diplomatic strategy, is (barely) plausible against a determined, virulently anti-American theocracy if it is, say, a decade away from the bomb. If the enemy is 24 months away, which is an Israeli “guesstimate” that the Biden White House accepts, then that approach is, to put it politely, flawed.

By 2025, if a new, hawkish Republican president is in the White House, the clerical regime will have even more money, and its nuclear advances would place it inches from the bomb. Iran’s progress with centrifuges and uranium enrichment is irreversibly significant. And now the Israelis are signaling clearly that they are unwilling to roll the dice with preventive air raids. The Israeli moment has probably passed. Some Republicans have surely been hoping that the Jewish state would do what America has declined to do.

So where Republicans are going remains unclear. Toward a containment strategy where American power, on land, sea, and air, is increased in the Middle East? Or to just more of the same with a hopeful twist: Washington sells more-advanced weapons to the Sunni Arab Gulf states (which really don’t have the skill set or volition to use them), rebuilds a sanctions wall, and hopes that the Iranian people will rise up, tear down the theocracy, and play nice with the nuclear weapons they have in their possession?

It’s a certainty that the Iranian people will keep confronting their oppressors. Best news for them: The possession of atomic arms doesn’t make the theocracy safer from the anger of those who don’t feel blessed living in an Islamist state. Nukes didn’t save the Soviet Union; they won’t save the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow Reuel on Twitter @ReuelMGerecht. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran Sanctions Sanctions and Illicit Finance